What is Brady material?
Brady material is exculpatory evidence discovered by the prosecution or otherwise in the prosecution’s possession that is withheld from the defense. Exculpatory evidence is any evidence that is favorable to the defendant that would help prove their innocence. Brady material derives its name from the 1963 landmark United States Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland.
In 1958, John Brady and Charles Boblit were accused of robbery and murder. According to Brady, both participated in the robbery, but Boblit committed the murder alone. The prosecution possessed a statement made by Boblit in which he admitted to killing the victim, but they did not reveal it to Brady’s defense prior to his trial; therefore, while it directly supported his innocence of the murder charge, he was unable to present the evidence to the jury. Brady and Boblit were both convicted of murder in separate trials.
Before Brady, a defendant’s right to a fair trial was only considered violated if the prosecution intentionally concealed exculpatory evidence in bad faith. The Supreme Court elevated the prosecution’s responsibility to disclose exculpatory evidence in Brady by ruling that any concealment of exculpatory evidence—regardless of intent—violates the right to a fair trial.
United States v. Bagley narrowed the Brady doctrine. Here, the court found that for a Brady violation to overturn a conviction, the undisclosed evidence must be “material”—meaning that the suppression of the evidence undermines the court’s confidence in the outcome of the trial.
Kyles v. Whitley is an important case that interpreted the Brady doctrine. In Kyles, the court found, among other things, that the State cannot simply claim ignorance when not disclosing exculpatory evidence; prosecutors must take steps to know what information is in the files of the experts and law enforcement they rely on and disclose what’s exculpatory to the defense.
In the Brady case, the material in question was the statement made by Boblit that would have aided Brady’s defense. It is likely that the discovery of the admission would have overturned Brady’s conviction post-Bagley as well because if the jury were aware of Boblit’s statement, the verdict for the murder charge may have been different.
Here is another example: Say someone is charged with murder, and an officer discovers that the footprints at the crime scene are not the same size as the defendants. Evidence that the footprints do not match the defendant would aid the defense’s case. If the State does not disclose measurements or photos of the footprints, it’s a Brady violation.
Why is this important?
The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments grant defendants the right to a fair trial and due process. To experience these rights, a defendant must have all favorable evidence that the State possesses. When a Brady violation occurs, the defendant’s rights are violated, and they are unable to mount a proper defense—risking wrongful conviction. Furthermore, the prosecution’s job is to seek justice. Withholding evidence that supports a defendant’s innocence contradicts that goal.